Lum Rexhepi got the call from Kosovo a few weeks ago. The country’s long struggle for FIFA recognition was at an end, and the Kosovo Football Association was planning its first international. Would Rexhepi be interested in playing for the team against Haiti? It was an easy decision to make.
"I wanted to be part of this historic event," said the Turku-born footballer. "Now it is here and it’s quite a spectacle. Hundreds of fans came in front of our hotel to sing and support us. It has been wonderful that I was able to be part of this."
The gifted young FC Honka defender has not played a match since last summer, when he underwent knee surgery. He will start from the bench against Haiti in Mitrovica on Wednesday, but hopes to get at least some playing time.
"I certainly won’t play many minutes, but the idea is to play some sort of role," said Rexhepi by phone from Mitrovica. "We agreed that I would come on at the end of the game. We’ll see how it goes. It could be that the match is quite tight at the end, but in principle it was agreed that I would play."
Rexhepi’s eligibility for the Kosovo team comes through his parents, who moved to Finland to pursue his father Afrim’s handball career.
He has played for Finnish teams at different age groups, but thanks to Kosovo’s unique status he is able to join up with Kosovo without committing to represent them in future. He does not yet have to choose between the country of his birth and that of his ancestors.
"I called Tommi Kautonen (Finland’s Under-21 manager) myself and explained the situation," said Rexhepi. "If it was a qualifying game then I would be forced to choose between the countries. I have not made that decision yet. We’ll see, if Kosovo get a license (to play in competitive games)."
World Cup 2018?
Kosovo is able to play friendlies recognised by FIFA, but not competitive games including qualifiers for the World Cup or European Championships. Rexhepi has long been in the thoughts of Kosovo’s coaches.
"Kosovo’s current coach Albert Bunjaki called me four years ago and told me he was building a Kosovar national team," explained Rexhepi. "I didn’t take it that seriously as it seemed so distant. Now the same head coach asked me to come and I said I would."
Bunjaki’s stated aim is to lead Kosovo into the qualifying tournament for the 2018 World Cup. If he achieves that, Rexhepi will have to decide—and Finland could lose one of its most promising young players.